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Metallica: From Metal to Main Street

Once the scourge of the mainstream, the titans of thrash are on top of the charts

November 14, 1991
metallica cover rolling stone 1991
Metallica on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

This has to be a first. Metallica's James Hetfield is sitting in the oak-paneled library-cum-lounge of the band's Paris hotel, the très posh Saint James's Club, and he's wearing a tie. There are extenuating circumstances, however. The blond, leonine singer-guitarist came down from his room in standard gear – black T-shirt, black jeans, black boots – all psyched up to order his first beer of the evening, when the maitre d' informed him with frosty politeness that club rules require gentlemen to wear ties. Hetfield, who sings a lot about death and destruction but likes a good gag as much as the next guy, agreed to put one on – over his T-shirt. Without another word, the maitre d' presented him with an ugly pink number with a big dark stain on it, pulled from a drawer behind the bar. So Hetfield has his tie and his beer, and he's talking about the recording sessions for Metallica's latest album when an elderly, balding American businessman in an expensively tailored suit comes up to the table and brusquely interrupts the conversation. "I would just like to say that you don't have to go to this extreme to look ridiculous,'' he says, looking at Hetfield with icy disdain. "I know you don't normally associate with people that do this. But you're just like a child.''

Hetfield keeps a civil tongue until Daddy Warbucks walks away. "Put a tie on, don't put a tie on,'' he says, his eyes narrowing into hard, angry slits. "Fuck you. I'll come down here naked next time."

"One of the first things people say to me now is 'Hey, you guys real rich?' '' Hetfield continues with a snort. "Who gives a shit? We're staying in this hotel, and I hate it. Can't come down to the bar and talk to your friends, have a drink. This old stuffy fuck coming up and telling me I look like a dick. Having money, being part of all this, freaks me out. I like being where most people can't find me, doing things by myself or just being with good friends in the wilderness, camping or drinking or whatever. I get a lot of time to think about what this shit is really about and what makes you happy.

"There's a lot of things people have totally forgotten about, they're so caught up in this,'' Hetfield says, gesturing around the room. "Looking good, being seen in the right places, playing the fucking game. I get real sick of that shit. That has nothing to do with real life, with being alive.''

If he wanted to, Hetfield could afford to run up bar bills at the Saint James's Club until doomsday, and dance on the tables to boot. Metallica – the band's fifth album and its first since 1988's double-platinum . . . And Justice for All – not only entered the Billboard album chart at Number One, it stayed there for an entire month while the leadoff single, "Enter Sandman,'' quickly bullied its way into the Top Thirty. Metallica also kicked big booty around the world, instantly topping charts in England, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Norway.

Yet after years of being on the outside looking in, hailed as young gods of the Eighties thrash underground and declaimed as the antichrists of AOR rock, the four members of Metallica – Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted, now all in their late twenties – have discovered to their chagrin that having a Number One record is not all it's cracked up to be. As Ulrich puts it, "It's just numbers on a fucking piece of paper.''

Ulrich remembers all too clearly the day this past August when he found out that Metallica had gone straight to Number One. He was in a hotel room in Budapest, where the band was playing as part of a European Monsters of Rock Tour with AC/DC, when the fax from Metallica's New York management office came in. He read it – and nothing happened. No fireworks, no champagne showers, no bimbos whispering sweet congratulations in his ear. Nada.

"You think one day some fucker's gonna tell you, 'You have a Number One record in America,' and the whole world will ejaculate,'' Ulrich says with a sardonic laugh. "I stood there in my hotel room, and there was this fax that said, 'You're Number One.' And it was, like, 'Well, okay.' It was just another fucking fax from the office.

"It's just really difficult to get excited about it,'' Ulrich continues. "We've never been really career-conscious. We never tried to be Number One. But now we're Number One and it's, like, okay.''

"I never pictured in my mind what having a Number One album meant,'' admits Newsted, "because I never thought it was possible to have a Number One record with the kind of music we played.''

That, of course, is the beauty of it. Metallica, the scourge of the mainstream, begins its second decade at the top. It was not that long ago that the band was a genre unto itself – the lone messiah of speed metal, worshiped by a small but vocal congregation of disenfranchised hard-rock disciples unimpressed by punk and disgusted with the candy-pants sound of early-Eighties commercial heavy metal. It was only in 1988 that the members of Metallica graduated from street brats to chart terrors, blowing open the temple doors of the Top Ten with . . . And Justice for All's hurricane mosaic of bludgeoning guitar riffs, fiendishly complex time changes and Hetfield's hell-comes-to-your-house exhortations.

That it was Metallica, an album of shorter songs and heightened studio intensity, that turned the Number One trick is no great surprise. "This album is a little easier to listen to for people who'd never heard Metallica before,'' Hetfield concedes. It is, however, anything but a retreat from extremes. With Metallica, the band stripped back its songwriting to a brutish minimum, used a commercial producer, Bob Rock, to make its heaviest-sounding record ever and dared to get downright romantic in the ballad passages.

"I know we're Number One completely on our own terms,'' Ulrich says proudly, taking an afternoon tea break in the Saint James's Club's sun-dappled back garden (no ties required). "This whole thing was done our way. There is an inner satisfaction about that, to give a major 'Fuck you' to the business itself and the way you're supposed to play the game and the way we dealt with all that shit up through the mid-Eighties.

"I know there were a lot of bands who went, 'Oh, yeah, Metallica, they sell a lot of records, but they can't play or write songs,' '' Ulrich adds. "I was just reading an interview with [the Cult's] Ian Astbury where he said going to a Metallica concert was one big wanking session with all these guys jerking each other off – and where's the femininity? Well, excuse me!

"So this is a big 'Fuck you,' not especially to Ian Astbury, but to all the people who felt that way for years and years and who came up and smiled to our faces, but as soon as they walked away, they were laughing at us – 'These guys, what's this thrash shit?' ''

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